So, admittedly my wife and I are a little crazy. We’re both in our early 30’s and we have 5 kids. That’s right…..five. Why? Well, there are many reasons (love, a feeling of calling, trying to take over the world, etc.), but I think the best reason is summarized in the documentary Danielson: A Family Movie - “We just wanted more people in the party.”
Whenever we talk with people about what it’s like having kids, there is a sentiment we often hear that goes something like this: “We want to have kids at some point, but we really want to travel before we do.” I can totally understand this thinking (and can completely affirm the need to get away sometimes, either alone or just with your partner), but I would love to speak into a myth this thought often leads to, namely: once you have kids, your traveling days are over.
This is simply not true. Now, is it more difficult? Ummm, yeah. Do you have to take more stuff with you? Yep. Does a five-hour drive quickly become a seven- or nine-hour trip? You bet. Is it worth it? Without a doubt. And the greatest treat for any traveler is visiting a place that feels like it was made to include everyone from the solo explorer to our crazy little army. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is one of those places. Recently, we loaded up the minivan and made the drive north from Birmingham, Alabama, and we would love to share our recommendations and tips on how to navigate this incredible river city:
Tip 1: Find a Home Base
First things first, get your car unpacked. You were likely just in the car for a few hours, and the kids probably didn’t nap well. Cut yourself some slack, and take time to get settled before the adventures begin.
SpringHill Suites by Marriott - Wonderfully large rooms sleep 6 adults easily, so the kids had plenty of room. It’s located right on the river and has easy access to everything downtown. Plus there is a bike share right outside the door and a wonderful restaurant, Table South, is attached to the lobby.
(Pro Tip: If you make your way back to Chattanooga sans-kids, stay at The Dwell Hotel. Trust us, you’ll love it.)
Tip 2: Share Plates & Small Plates
We have found that the best practice to prevent food waste (and $$ waste) is to share either one large plate or a few small plates. Make the call depending on what peaks your interest on the menu.
Puckett’s - Order “The Whole Farm” - This is a perfect share plate. Beef Brisket, pulled pork, a fried chicken leg, baby back ribs, and 3 sides. The food was absolutely delicious, and the staff was so incredible for our family. Quick, kind, and even asking about if anyone had allergies. (Also, it’s right next to the aquarium!)
Taco Mamacita - Order the “Peruvian Chicken Dinner” (and at least 1 taco) - A 1/2 rotisserie chicken served with 2 sides. This alone was able to fill us up, but they are known for their tacos, so we couldn’t leave without trying at least 1! The unexpected winner of taste: Vegetarian Jerk Taco. The flavor is perfectly on point.
(Pro Tip: For you locals, kids eat free on Mondays if you purchase one of the Taco Mamacita t-shirts.)
Milk & Honey - Order “Farmhouse Biscuit, Buttermilk Waffles, Grilled Cheese, & Gelato” - Small plates unite! Milk & Honey is just down the sidewalk from Taco Mamacita, and serves breakfast & lunch all day. If you have any picky-eaters in your family, you know breakfast is the best type of food to serve them. M&H takes it to the next level with their farm fresh ingredients and perfect flavor combinations. Our kids loved the double layer Grilled Cheese & the Buttermilk Waffles. Make sure to treat-yo-self to Gelato as well. It’s a vacation, right?
Main Street Meats - Order… everything… just order everything. Not only is this a perfect place to pick up picnic essentials (see Tip 5), but Main Street Meats is simply one of the best restaurants in Chattanooga. Everything from the greatest Reuben you’ll ever taste, to their play on a “Lunchable” (aka a kid-friendly charcuterie board), this is a perfect spot to take in all the flavors of Chattanooga.
(Pro Tip: If the kids are getting to you by this point in the trip, they have an incredible whiskey selection.)
Tip 3: Alternate Indoor & Outdoor Adventures
Our kids love to expend a lot of energy quickly, which means if we go somewhere outside they are immediately running until they are exhausted! Couple that with a pregnant wife, and I need to make sure there are regular A/C breaks & opportunities to sit down.
Rock City Garden - If you’ve driven through the South, odds are that at some point you will have seen a billboard (or fifty) inviting you to “See Rock City.” Well, I’m here to tell you the same: See Rock City! The hike is incredibly doable for all ages, as the scenery guides your heart from a peaceful experience of the cool and calming rock crevasses to the wonder-filled views of Lookout Mountain.
Creative Discovery Museum - With a four-story indoor playground, art rooms with live demonstrations, and a giant guitar, the CDM will be a highlight your kids will remember for years!
Tip 4: Walk the City
One of our favorite aspects of Chattanooga is the walk-ability of it. If you’re going to head up the mountain, you’ll need to jump in your car, but otherwise most everything is an acceptable distance either walking or taking the Downtown FREE zero-emission shuttle.
Walnut Street Bridge - Try to go at sunset, and you’ll see one of the many reasons Chattanooga is so special. As the golden light plays off of the water, you’ll see residents and visitors from every stage of life enjoy either a gentle stroll or energizing jog. Buskers pepper the bridge with the sounds of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, so make sure to bring a couple dollars so your kids can show their appreciation.
(Pro Tip: Make sure to stop by The Ice Cream Show located on the south side of the bridge for a little reward after your walk.)
Tip 5: Have a Picnic
Much like walking the city, having a picnic slows down the pace of trips that can often go by far too quickly. Take time, lie in the grass, and enjoy the quiet.
Main Street Meats, Niedlov’s Breadworks, and Bleu Fox Cheese Shop - All of these shops are located on West Main Street, and they will have everything you need for the most perfect picnic of fresh bread, cured meats, and creamy cheeses.
Coolidge Park - Set right under the Walnut Street Bridge, this park has plenty of wide open spaces on the river, but it also has an incredible splash pad and a 1800s Antique Carousel, still in operation!
Tip 6: Leave Something for Next Time
The biggest temptation for traveling is giving in to the fear of missing out. The wonderful treasures that cities hold, especially cities like Chattanooga, cannot all be explored in one trip. So take a deep breath and realize that one of the best gifts you can give your future self is something to explore next time.
The Tennessee Aquarium - The Tennessee Aquarium is divided into two incredible experiences: River & Ocean. If you want to spend most of your day exploring both experiences you will not be disappointed, but feel free to choose just one. Our last trip to Chattanooga we chose the River, so this trip we headed into the Ocean experience. Dividing up this adventure helps you really take in all you’re seeing without feeling rushed to get to the next thing.
Tip 7: Do Something Unexpected
Hidden in every city is something or someplace most visitors don’t know about. It might be a noodle bar or a late night dive (see “Favorite Lil’ Dive Bar: The Coin-Op” from our Wanderlust issue). It always helps to ask friends who have visited the city in the past or waitresses at the local spots you visit where you should go.
Live a Little Chatt - This trip we were given the heads up to drive 30 minutes into Lookout Mountain and visit Brian Morris at the tiny home village Live a Little Chatt. We could not have chosen a better place to end our visit to Chattanooga. We stayed in an incredible tiny house named “Old Blue Chair” positioned right on the mountainside. There was a bottle of wine waiting for us, s’more supplies, a campfire, and the best view on the mountain. And as if the experience needed to get any better, when Brian first arrived he ran from his car, stated “the wind is perfect right now,” flung open his backpack, and within five minutes was jumping off the mountain and soaring through the air on his paraglider. To this day, my kids think he’s a real-life Superman. Go visit Live a Little Chatt.
(Pro Tip: How does our large family all fit in a tiny house? Pack light, know what’s really important for your stay, and remember that these close moments get more and more rare the older kids get.)
(Pro Tip: When I say the tiny homes are “positioned right on the mountainside”, I mean right on the side of the mountain. If you have small kids, make sure you lay down “ground” rules right when you arrive, and enjoy this incredible place!)
One of the greatest treasures of having kids is reading stories to them. Kids’ books have changed since I was growing up, and many children’s authors have come to understand the responsibly and honor they have of introducing key life lessons in their simplest forms to children. Often times I’m brought to tears reading these short books to my kids because I find that I’ve often forgotten the simple truths of the value of love, forgiveness, sharing, and thankfulness. In a recent Mo Willems (famous for the Pigeon series) book called Welcome: A Mo Willems Guide for New Arrivals, he states that the two lessons you learn from your child as soon as they are born are to “Stop” and “Be.” Traveling as a family reminds you that the cliché “it’s the journey, not the destination” is without a doubt true but often forgotten. Yes, sometimes you scream, are impatient, and want to pull your hair out because we just stopped to pee and why didn’t you just go then! But then there are car games, movies, funny conversations, watching their heads bob as they try to fight off sleep, unexpected stop-offs at farmers markets, and the absolute wonder of your littlest jumping out to pick a flower from that pretty field.
Published online on August 13, 2018: Written by Caleb Chancey